The August War, 13 years later (Part 1)
Part 1: Missed warnings and memories of war
Over the next three days, Great Power will publish three sections of a series of interviews — conducted with Georgians who were on the front lines of the war before, during, and after it began — about the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008. These are people that I learned from and worked with — and who I think we all have a lot to learn from. Great Power readers will no doubt understand that these lessons are as much about getting our relationship with the Kremlin right now as they are about events 13 years ago and thousands of miles away.
August 8, Introduction & Part 1: warning lights and memories of the war
August 9, Part 2: misperceptions of the war, and their entrenchment
August 10, Part 3 & conclusions: did we miss an important chance to alter the Kremlin’s behavior, and could we do it now?
On August 8, 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. It should have been a warning to us all — and a chance, maybe, to avert what has come after from the Kremlin. But it didn’t turn out that way.
There are a lot of ways of describing this decision to not see what happened for what it was, particularly through the powerful rearward lens of the Russian stealth invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
But the best word I can think of to describe it, and what came after, is heartbreaking. For Georgia, Georgians, and the Georgia that could have been. For the Syrians and Ukrainians who would soon meet the sharpened Russian military that emerged from the lessons-learned of the Georgian incursion. For all the rest of us in the West who have had our discourse and politics manipulated and twisted far more than we like to admit by Kremlin disruption.
For all of this and more, the averted gazes after the August War in 2008 were just crushingly heartbreaking.
This is usually absent from the “X years on” accounts of the 2008 war — today being the 13th anniversary of the start of that conflict.
Also absent from these accounts is how prepared, deliberate, cruel, and devastating the Russian military campaign against Georgia really was. The phrase “five day war” minimizes what was done, and the context of how we discuss it is usually about the clash between personalities or geopolitical ambitions. None of this captures the texture of the invasion — the fires, the violence, the propaganda. The bravery of Georgians and a dedicated group of international friends — who showed up in Tbilisi and stayed until the shooting stopped, and who fought to increase pressure on Moscow from Western capitals.
But I think what was lost and what we missed is best explained by Georgian voices. And this is what I wanted to bring you today: 13 years on, some of the memories and reflections of just a few of the Georgians who were right in the middle of the war, and what came before and after — Georgians who are part of the reason that the Kremlin couldn’t achieve all of its objectives in 2008.
Through the work that I had the privilege to do and the way I chose to do it, I had the enormous good fortune of being, for a time, a colleague, student, archivist, and sometimes friend of more than a few of these Georgians. I was one of the new editions to the team of international consultants and advisers who were added in the period after the war — when the Georgians were trying to make their way with a new American administration improbably pressing a “reset” with Russia; when they were trying to explain why support for their experimental democracy-building was so important; and when they, along with the Balts and Poles and Swedes, were trying to explain to Washington and Brussels what would come next if we closed our eyes about 2008. As a registered foreign agent for the Georgian government (for the Georgian National Security Council, and later for the Prime Minister and President), this was the problem set before me: how to document what Russia was doing to Georgia, and how to explain why it should mean something to those of us living thousands of miles away.
What happened in Georgia in the period between the lead up to the Rose Revolution in 2003 — one of the famed pro-democracy “color revolutions” that still give Putin indigestion — and roughly about the end of 2011 — when the Russian-made oligarch who now controls Georgia “entered politics” and threw a wrench into the sometimes beautiful, sometimes Frankensteined, always unconventional machinery of governance that was built up from the dust that came before — is a truly remarkable story amply populated by a truly transformative group of individuals. It’s one of these strange node points in history where whatever Fates there may be spin together a group of people in the same place at the same time and some kind of magic happens. Like the period in the ‘20s & ‘30s when so many writers and artists jumbled together in Paris and Spain, in cafes and into the Spanish Civil War. It’s not just the paintings and novels and poems that survive, but the stories of how these works came to be that are still being told and retold a century later. It’s the story of the process as much as the product that captures us.
In Georgia, hundreds of dedicated, smart, often impossibly-young Georgian reformers joined the government and parliament after the Rose Revolution in 2003 — and then they basically didn’t see their families very much for the next nine years. Famously midnight-oil burning, there could be a meeting of ministers or deputies at 2am one night, and by afternoon that day there would be a draft policy or plan about what to do. They inherited a corrupt, crime-ridden, stumbling, failed post-Soviet nation that couldn’t keep the lights on or keep its territory under the control of the central government, and in that handful of years before the Russian tanks came — and working closely with international allies and advisors who knew the importance of what they were trying to do, and the importance of doing it with great speed — they transformed the country so completely that people had already started to take for granted that it hadn’t been like this all along.
In those years, articles about the Georgian transformation were scattered across the Western press. International critics of Georgia’s polarizing young president, Mikheil Saakashviki (aka “Misha”), would grumble that this was all PR smoke and mirrors — but it wasn’t, and pages of economic indicators, new investment, the restoration of electricity to the country, and a totally rebuilt police force were just a small part of the very real work that was being done to save this small and beautiful place from the self-eating nothingness of post-Soviet existence and put it on the path toward Europe and toward NATO. The speed of this work is actually impossible for Americans — used to a Congress that can barely pass budget resolutions every year — to imagine.
The war in 2008 was about slowing the trajectory of Georgia toward the West, and it was about beginning to erase all the stories that you should know about the incredible people who could even imagine that the transformation of such a place was possible.
So I used the occasion of the anniversary of the war as an excuse to reconnect with old friends about old times after these recent strange years of separation, and to collect more of their truly unique knowledge. Here are a few of their memories of the war, and what it meant, and what the compounding cost of ignoring what the Kremlin’s aggression really looks like.
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Russia invaded Georgia during the opening of the Beijing Olympics, and it’s an understatement to say the attention of the world was elsewhere. Like the cyberattacks on Ukraine and the US during our Independence Day holidays, the Kremlin loves to double-spoil your day. I think President George W Bush, himself a great supporter of Georgia and its Western ambitions and close to the end of his 8 years in office, was seated in the section of the Olympic stadium reserved for world leaders watching the mechanized wonders of the Chinese propaganda pageantry when an adviser leaned over his shoulder to inform him of this news. Sitting somewhere behind him was then-Prime Minister Putin (his understudy Medvedev was playing the role of president that day). You can still find videos and photos of Bush and Putin watching the opening ceremonies together, and then seemingly tense exchanges during other Olympic events before Bush departed back to Washington.
Back in Georgia, nobody was watching the Olympics. They were tuned-in to the frequent updates from their government about the advance of the Russian military into their territory, the bombings, and what the government was doing to defend the nation and work with international partners to negotiate an end to the war.
Eka Tkeshelashvili was Georgia’s foreign minister during the war. Not much more than 30, she had already been justice minister and chief prosecutor, and would later serve as the president’s national security advisor and in other senior positions. She was known by Georgia’s Western partners for her incredibly fast, incredibly precise way of speaking — in any language, but especially English — and her archival memory of details and facts that she used to press Georgia’s case.
Temuri Yakobashvili was Georgia’s state minister for reintegration — meaning he was responsible for all the work to engage Georgia’s two breakaway/occupied territories, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (aka South Ossetia), and for negotiating with his Russian counterparts on all related issues. He would later serve as Georgia’s ambassador in Washington, and was generally a sublime cultural ambassador for Georgia’s wine, cuisine, history, art, literature, and film. He was also replete with an endless supply of off-color jokes and anecdotes.
Giga Bokeria was deputy foreign minister, and would later be national security adviser. His mother was a chess grandmaster, and Giga had inherited this ability to see many possibilities unfold many steps ahead into the future and had a sometimes irritating way of answering questions before you asked them. He was famous for “Bokerian time” — being hours and hours late for meetings, even important meetings, because he was in some even more important meeting that ran late. But he was a charmer with apologies, which goes a long way.
Shota Utiashvili was the director of the analytical department in the Georgian Ministry of Interior. This was a vital intelligence position, particularly about Russian activities in and around Georgia. He said nothing that was unnecessary or without deliberation. During the war, he was sent out to the frontlines of the fighting to gather accurate information about what was actually happening — as opposed to the Russian propaganda footage — and communicate it to Georgia’s international partners and back to the team in Tbilisi.
Elene Khoshtaria was in the crisis group of the Georgian National Security Council during the war in 2008. The group helped put together the timeline of what was happening, coordinated government messaging, and coordinated the international press covering the war (in particular, their safety). They worked to ensure that Georgian society was informed but not panicked about events on the ground. Elene also served for many years as deputy to the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, which included working on Georgia’s NATO aspirations, always a top priority for the country. She was known for being serious, concise, straightforward — not a time-waster, in any respect, and not an ounce of bullsh*t.
Each of these Georgians played a vital role before, during, and after the 2008 war, and was a trusted interlocutor for the Georgian government with its Western partners. They were all young and had young families in Georgia at the time of the war. (I will use their first names to cite them in this piece — to save a lot of letters, but also in the Georgian habit.)
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Part 1: Warning lights and memories of war
I began by asking the Georgians what role they had played in trying to warn Georgia’s Western partners in advance of the war. This was a whole-of-government effort spanning many months, backed by timelines and spreadsheets and maps and reports and physical evidence. Their allies in this were the Baltic states, Poland, and Sweden.
“I think the crucial moment was the [NATO Bucharest Summit in early April 2008],” Giga offers. The summit communique had strong language that Georgia and Ukraine would someday become members of NATO — but did not offer details on a specific Membership Action Plan or how to get one. The Bush administration had pushed hard for MAP for both countries — but there were European opponents. “The Bucharest summit sent a message to Putin that the US position with the European partners was weakened; that the Western world, the free world, was deeply divided; that there were major players who were not willing to challenge Putin’s goals to undermine the statehood of its neighbors, the frontier states. And I think that was the tipping point in Putin‘s decision-making.”
Temuri described telling a group in Brussels in May 2008 that Georgia was on the brink of war with Russia. Afterward, a senior EU official came up to him and said: I would refrain from using the ‘W’ word because no one wants to hear it here.
“It was not a lack of effort by Georgia to explain [what was coming],” Temuri explains, “but a lack of willingness to hear what Georgia said… The answer we were getting was, don’t provoke the Russians. It’s the same advice they were giving to the Ukrainians when the Russians were taking over Crimea. Don’t provoke the Russians.”
This theme of provocation runs all through the topics is this interview. There were months of preparations by Russia to invade, mass troop movements, the construction of hundreds of kilometers of rail lines to move men and materiel into place — all while the Georgians were engaged in extensive, parallel diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the potential conflict, and while many of their best-trained troops were in Iraq fighting as part of the our coalition efforts. But the perception war has always been about whether Georgia somehow “sparked” the war the Russians had prepared for.
“Most of our diplomacy at the time was concentrated actually on prevention of the war,” says Eka. “To warn what was understood from our side about what the Russians were up to. The events that preceded the war. Providing information, but also seeking solutions to it.” There were two tracks: one was with international partners, to inform them and engage them to engage the Russians; and the other to engage the Russians directly. “This coincided with Medvedev coming in as president, and direct contact from Misha.”
The foreign ministry followed up with proposals for specific, innovative new solutions to the conflict. “We delivered [these proposals] to the Russians — and they were, at the end of the day, completely ignored by the Russians… We saw escalation of the situation well in advance of August — March, April, and May already, on the ground both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia — paratroopers coming in to Abkhazia, and Russia issuing passports to the regions, and legal semi-recognition of the regions as sovereign regions even before the conflict… expanding troop presence beyond what was allowed by the UN mission in Abkhazia and by the OSCE mission in South Ossetia… One of the primary jobs for us at the time was to have a very active diplomatic interaction across different platforms for peace negotiations… methodically and systemically raising awareness and knowledge and appeals to help with this on the ground.”
Misha followed up on his outreach to Medvedev at their next meeting, about the proposals from the Georgian side that would have gradually changed the dynamics on the ground. This included proposals for Russian troop withdrawal from parts of the Abkhazian territory, but they got peacekeeping presence; Georgian authorities could start to rebuild the territory; IDPs from the conflict in the ‘90s would get to turn, etc. Elements of this would not have been popular domestically, but the Georgian government felt that change “in a dramatic way” was necessary to change the facts on the ground. “We were ready to pay the political price internally if that would’ve come to some fruition, that proposal,” Eka says. “If Russia would have had even the slightest intention for any peaceful resolution, this was a very strong face-saving plan for them as well, because they would’ve still been part of the process, they wouldn’t have been kicked out, they would’ve been part of the resolution. But obviously there was nothing in Russian planning for any de-escalation. They were methodically preparing for escalation and then invasion, which they did… Already in Misha’s second meeting with Medvedev…. he basically said that he was not in charge of this process and there was nothing he could do with these proposals.” Putin was in charge.
Eka described in some detail the ways Russia moved troops into position, pretending they were peacekeepers in the regular contingents. “They went blatantly beyond all qualifications of what the peacekeepers should have had on the ground, and we basically said we are not in the position anymore to maintain the ‘fake news’ that these were peacekeepers… they didn’t comply anymore and weren’t hiding it at all. This is when they started repairing the railway connection in Abkhazia, which they effectively used when they were moving the tanks and the troops when they came in August for the war.”
Eventually Germany was put in charge of trying to come up with a plan to de-escalate the tensions. “So the narrative was,” Eka explains, “let us work on it, we will de-escalate the situation, and will come up with a new plan how to turn the situation around, and have a peaceful resolution. And we said OK… The plan was not perfect, there were elements of the plan that were problematic to us… but the situation at the time was too tense, too desperate, and de-escalation was desperately needed… we understood that this was the only chance to turn around the situation and move developments into the negotiated format rather than Russia moving the situation into armed confrontation.” A meeting was planned in Berlin on August 4— but ultimately the Russians blew off the meeting. “They said they were planning their summer vacations,” Eka remembers with an audible eyeroll.
“For me,” says Shota, “ the clearest indication of the war was August 2-3. Our signals intelligence reported intercepts from the Ossetian borderguards that about 4000 people — a quarter of the entire Ossetian population — were evacuated in a single day. Since then it couldn’t be clearer that we were heading to the war.”
“When Steinmeier [Germany’s foreign minister and the negotiator of this process] was visiting the Abkhazian region,” Eka says, “he basically said, ‘I sense the war already there, they are getting ready for the war.’”
“When the Russians said they were planning their vacation” — Eka’s eyeroll feels persistent — “they had already begun shelling villages, constant escalation everyday, Russians bringing in journalist crews to South Ossetia in preparation for the war. Nothing was in anyway indicative of vacation time… I think this was something that was not understood or underestimated by our international partners, what this meant…This is how the Russians responded to robust attempts at de-escalation… this should have been the moment of interaction with them, with clear signs of what would’ve been the price that they would’ve paid if they would do this. And I guess the missing link always in this situation was that.”
Eka described how four or five different redlines were drawn, and then changed with no consequences for Russia. “It was somehow an expectation that if we would have restrained, no matter what would happen — including when Russian troops came in, including when we had nonstop shelling and bombardment of the villages and we had to rescue the citizens from the ground — that somehow the situation would’ve been saved and Russia ultimately would not intrude into the territory of a neighboring country. Because yes, they could show muscle, yes, they could show the strength, yes, they could harass — but ultimately with a real invasion, they would not do it. This was the understanding — and it was a complete misunderstanding. Russia had a well-developed strategic intention at the time to do this. And the strategy was not only with Georgia, but with Russia’s vision of its place in ‘the neighborhood of Russia,’ as it calls it, and in the projection of its power elsewhere. With Georgia they basically tested the ground for crossing redlines — real real redlines that nobody thought would have been crossed — and it went by without Russia paying any price. And that was already something that showed how Russia then used this lesson in relation to Crimea…”
“Georgia was the testing ground,” Eka concluded, “a testing ground for punishing and destroying a successful democracy in Russia’s neighborhood that did not agree to become a country with limited sovereignty — which Russians had articulated quite clearly and many times. They had that vision that countries in their neighborhood have limited sovereignty in foreign and internal matters, as well.”
“Our failure was that we failed to convince our good partners,” Giga says, “and the Bush administration was a very good partner — we failed to show that there was a strategic threat coming from Putin’s actions to Georgia’s sovereignty, and, larger than that, that Putin’s goal was challenging Euro-Atlantic security. That he was actually capable of taking this kind of risk. Putin was treated as a nuisance — a serious nuisance — but not more than that… This was our failure, even with our best friends.”
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I asked the Georgians about their most poignant memories of the days of the war — professional or otherwise.
“My most vivid memory was going to Tskhinvali on the 4th of August,” says Temuri, “where mysteriously the Russian cochair did not show up, saying that he had a flat tire, and then that the spare tire was also flat. We were going to see the head of the Russian peacekeepers. But when we were driving in the city — it was like one of those western movies where you see the deserted town, and bad sh*t gonna happen, and the dry bushes are blowing across the sand. And I told my deputy, the city is pregnant for war. This abnormal silence. This depopulated city, stray dogs running in the streets, no cars, no people. War was in the air… This is my most vivid memory. Everybody is evacuated. But there are a bunch of Russian journalists who apparently arrived in Tskhinvali to report about the war — several days before the war started.”
“The transition into the war — I remember that,” says Eka. “The situation was getting worse and worse every day, it was 24-hour work to ring up everybody [on the diplomatic lists] who was on vacation in hard-to-reach places. And then to observe, on a personal ground, that this was already happening, and nothing was preventing the invasion at the end of the day — this was a really painful moment to realize, when the troops were already through the Roki tunnel and, yes, the Russian army at the full scale was already entering.”
“There were many things that we were seeing, signs that we could interpret that were leading us to think that Russia was preparing for warfare,” says Temuri. “For example, the leaflets that were distributed among Russian soldiers, ‘Know Your Enemy’ — distributed during the Kavkaz military exercises — the enemy was definitely clearly as Georgia. The sudden failure of our IT infrastructure during the war — all the major websites went down, not only the government but also think tanks, others — and the telephone lines. Unless these things are premeditated, it’s not gonna happen like that.”
“A particular fact that I recall,” says Bokeria, “is that until the last moment, everybody, even our best friends, thought that ‘we should not get provoked [by Russia],’ and that that would be enough to calm the situation. That the Russians would not go to the extent that it will be impossible not to react — because it would mean they would undermine the whole country, and who knows what could have been the scenario. You never knew where the Russian troops would stop, if they would, when you learned that they are entering your territory in big numbers — or if you would allow their ethnic proxies to have ethnic cleansing of the local villages, which was ongoing — and the bombardment. And you don’t act?” An impossible notion, as far as he is concerned.
Giga continues: “We knew that they would try to provoke a mutiny within the army and within the country [if we didn’t react to their attacks] — because you have a government that just observed as people were slaughtered. And then [the Russians] would have acted, in the way they can, in several directions within our country.” The kind of measures that we know call active or hybrid or grey. “So I always recall this particular conversation with Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice — to whom I am so grateful, because she came to Georgia at a very important moment… There was still a misunderstanding that it was this was a move to show strength, and not a willingness to actually start an invasion. That’s why I recall this conversation where I said, ‘what should we do if they take further sovereign territory that is not under their control by force?’ —and her response was, ‘I know the Russians, they won’t do that.’ … [There is that] cliché charge against the Bush administration that they somehow encouraged us to war — it is just the contrary.”
Eka described how the core foreign ministry staff spend two sleepless nights working out of a think tank because they were worried about the government buildings being targeted if Russia attacked Tbilisi.
“Personally, my most unforgettable moment was the phone calls,” says Shota. Georgia does sometimes live up to its reputation of feeling like a large but tiny village where everyone knows everyone — and this is very much the case when it comes to people reaching out directly to officials whose mobile numbers they have had in their phone since high school. “The people whose towns were occupied wanted to call somewhere to report what was happening around them. Some were seeing their neighbors killed, their houses robbed and burned, and they thought the same thing would happen to them. Three or four of them had my number and called me with these horrible accounts.”
“When we opened a hot-line during the war to evacuate people from the territory that was being bombed/occupied/affected by the war,” writes Elene of the crisis group’s operations. “In one village that was getting bombed, we sent a bus to the highway near the village to evacuate people (we couldn’t get it inside the village itself), and I was on a phone line with one of the residents to get updates. Throughout the call, I could hear how they were losing people on the way… In the end, some made it out of the village, but others did not.”
Georgia’s international friends — those with access to their own planes — started to arrive in Tbilisi. Eka describes how the Lithuanian foreign minister arrived, and they went out to Gori, near the line with South Ossetia — which had already been bombed and was about to be bombed again. The Russians were targeting critical infrastructure. The Lithuanian said that he would stand on the bridge, and if the Russians bombed it, they would have to kill a European foreign minister, as well. They saw corpses lying in the rubble as they walked together through the town.
“The night that we learned the five presidents were flying to Tbilisi,” says Eka, referring to the announced arrival of the Polish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian presidents, who flew together into Georgia, “this literally brought hope back to people as well — that [as long as] the presidents were in Tbilisi, Tbilisi would not be bombed or invaded. And this was the personal courage of all of them, a very hard way of coming to Georgia at the time, the Baltic presidents and the Polish president and the Ukrainian president. And we are very grateful to them for doing that. And we fed all the details of this to the people, so they could understand what was happening, and I really admire the courage of the people. We didn’t see people fleeing, we didn’t see disarray, we didn’t have any banking crisis, or people withdrawing cash, people buying food. Tbilisi was functioning as if everything was almost normal — with just very tense people, obviously, in looking at what might happen. But we didn’t have panic in the city.”
“After Bush announced he was sending a military-humanitarian mission, sending the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State — it was a crucial crucial moment, and a crucial message,” says Giga. “After the first US plane landed at the Tbilisi airport, the Russians told them the plane had to be withdrawn, because they had to bomb the airport — and we all worried that if that demand would be met, that that would be a signal of very dangerous tension. And we were all relieved when the message was that the Americans were not removing the plane. And then the Russians didn’t dare to bomb the airport. This was an important psychological-political-military moment, that the US government has refused to do this. This was a confirmation of the seriousness of the message of President Bush — and not only that, but other moves that they made, which we learned of later on.”
But amidst the war and all these great games, they were still young people with families. “At some point you forget everything personal,” says Eka. “My daughter was nine months old at the time, and was out of town with her granny, it was summertime… And on the 10th or 11th of August, when already Russian troops were advancing more and more, and there was valid ground to believe they would come up to Tbilisi as well — I realized that I had to get her back to me… [When my husband went to get her,] people panicked. They thought that something was already happening. So my husband had to explain to people that we had to have our 9-month-old with us, that we were not fleeing the country, that nobody was fleeing the country.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had come and would give Eka and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorsky a ride to an EU meeting on the Georgia crisis on his plane, since there were still no commercial flights. “Everybody from Eastern Europe was fully convinced that Russia was ready, and it was in fact their intention basically to crush Georgia and have regime change, the classics of what Russia would do in the early 20th century,” says Eka. “And my colleagues were saying to me that as foreign minister, I had to go to another country as a safe country, to have legitimate representation of Georgia be assured — as the Baltic states did, for example, during the WWII occupation of their countries… But at the time, we thought it was not the moment to do that. It would’ve been very hard to reconcile the idea of how to do that. But even talks like that in those short days — all of that was happening.”
“A funny memory I have,” writes Elene. “We were on the eighth floor of the national security council at the moment George Bush announced he would send humanitarian help to Georgia — the ships and airplanes. And when we heard that, and we were saying that Russia will probably pull off something before that. And suddenly we heard an explosion and the lights went out. Turns out it was just an electric generator that malfunctioned and exploded.” Elene has a gift for capturing the weirdness of these situations in anecdotes.
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Monday’s section will continue with misperceptions and untruths about the war in August 2008.